The week that was

Clare Forrester

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

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I begin by extending my condolence to the family of my dear departed friend and media colleague Heather Little-White Watson. Heather was truly one of a kind, a person of great courage and resilience, someone I deeply admired and respected. She will be missed. This country is a better place as a result of her presence with us.

Congratulations to Nicholas 'The Axeman' Walters on his history-making victory in claiming the WBA featherweight title recently. Simon Crosskill's post-fight interview with Jamaican boxer Sakima Mullings, who had earlier defeated Rikardo Smith by a majority decision, left viewers puzzled when the boxer, who has one loss on record, declared that he was now "back to being an undefeated champion".

Happily Lance Whittaker cleared up the puzzle in his wrap-up comments.

Where was Lance when Crosskill made his mind-boggling comment on the SportsMax Zone panel with Wavel Hinds and sports anchor Alexis Nunes last week, in discussing the Lance Armstrong interview? Crosskill made the assertion that he did not believe in apologies, period. That was one ball that Wavel should have dispatched to the boundary.

Mental health in the spotlight

Presumably like many other readers, I was touched by Ainsworth Morris's article on the struggles of one woman in coping with her mentally incapacitated 21-year-old son that was published in this paper on Sunday. Here is a woman whose adult life has been dedicated to caring for her son, who was diagnosed with autism, with precious little help.

I commend the Observer for its prominent treatment of this most important subject of mental health. What was especially interesting to me were the number and types of comments on the article submitted by readers. Clearly Ainsworth Morris struck a nerve.

What was equally interesting was that some of the comments included a few good suggestions for follow-up action beyond donations. Regrettably, only those readers who access the paper online will have seen those and other comments by readers.

There were 23 responses within 24 hours, most joining the appeal for assistance for the mother. Some called on fathers to step forward. In this case, the father of the mentally incapacitated young man has been missing in action from day one.

A few, presumably male, respondents were offended by what they thought was the singling out of men, stating that this is a case involving both parties equally. Some abhorred the absence of state-run facilities; others were of the view that the woman may be able to cope if provided with some resources such as a stipend and a place to live with her son.

For once the Government was not seen as the only culprit or sole answer to the problem. Generally, though, the cross-talk generated by the story strongly suggests that it could result in creating a 'teachable moment' for mental health issues.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has affirmed the sheer magnitude of the issue of mental disorders and itemised the huge social and economic burden they place on families, communities and countries. In doing so the WHO has suggested that the scale of the problem warrants an urgent call for global and national mental health initiatives.

In a 2001 report, the WHO stated that "one out of every four persons who turn to the health services for help is troubled by mental or behavioural disorders, which are not often correctly diagnosed or treated. Additionally, mental health care had simply not received the level of visibility, commitment and resources that was warranted by the magnitude of the mental health burden to countries. Only a very small percentage of national health budgets in most countries go to mental health".

There is no reason to believe that the situation has been altered or changed significantly globally, and definitely not nationally since this report was tabled. While the plight of the woman in the story cries out for attention, the well-written story is another strong indication of the potential power of the media in the cause of building awareness for health, in this case mental health.

In fact, in recent years, countries of the English-speaking Caribbean (and Suriname) relisted mental health among the nine priority health issues being addressed collaboratively. In its initial listing of priority health issues for a collaborative approach, PAHO targeted the media as having a crucial role. So important a role that in 2001 the entire regional media awards programme administered by PAHO was initially designed to focus on the coverage of mental health.

That didn't work very well, as it simply was not realistic to expect that newspapers, radio and television stations in our countries would suddenly begin to devote significant time and space to the issue for it to be a stand-alone category in the annual programme.

Mental health just was never considered sufficiently "sexy" to warrant so much attention. In fact, none of the short-listed entries on mental health that year stand out in my recollection, save and except for the award-winning crime-related radio story by a Jamaican journalist which was placed in that category by stretching the criteria.

Clearly, one article, however good and well positioned, can never be expected to cover all the outstanding issues. Several of the comments suggest that many people may be unaware of existing resources available for the care and treatment of the mentally ill.

While it is true that we are a long way off providing the type of service that would help this unfortunate mother, there are services available, mostly provided by the public purse, but there are also some others privately run, as explained by Dr Wendel Abel in an article under the heading 'Yes! Mental health services are available in Jamaica' published in the Gleaner in September last year.

Given the comments on the Sunday Observer story, I am guessing that many people did not read that revealing article. In it Dr Abel listed the major services available, comprising free medication, free service at all public hospitals and several clinics as well as private care, to include day service and group homes; also there are hospitals that operate a crisis team for patients deemed to be out-of-control.

Dr Abel also wrote that persons with a mental illness may receive subsidised bus passes and limited social services. In order to access these services, however, would-be applicants need to register with the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disability.

I can only hope that in the public interest, the Observer and other media houses and practitioners will not let this issue return under the covers. It is much too important and a major burden on public and family resources.




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